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South Wales Evening Post measles campaign was hard hitting but reflected parents' concerns at the time says Editor, Jonathan Roberts

By South Wales Evening Post  |  Posted: April 10, 2013

MMR

MMR

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As the measles outbreak has escalated over the last few weeks, there have been suggestions that media coverage, back in 1997, of a potential link between the MMR jab and autism has contributed to a significantly lower uptake of the vaccine, and is a major contributory factor to the disease's rapid spread across Swansea.

Many of our readers will be aware that at the time the Evening Post ran a high profile campaign on this issue, which has now led some experts to suggest this newspaper is at least in part responsible for the lower uptake of the MMR, and therefore a contributor to the scale of the outbreak in the city today.

I have been asked by several media outlets for a comment. I have declined to speak publicly until now, other than to say that the campaign pre-dates today's newsroom, and it would be impossible to offer a comment that accurately reflects the aims of that particular campaign, or indeed the impact it may or may not have had on opinion locally.

Today, as more measles cases emerge, and concerned parents queue in their hundreds to try to protect their children, I have decided it is time we spoke to our readers directly.

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There are now 581 young people and children in the Swansea area suffering with measles. And before I say anything else about an outbreak which has affected so many families, it is important they know that the welfare of their children is uppermost in our thoughts.

And I do not say that as the editor of this newspaper, but as a dad with a three-year-old child who seems to spend every moment worrying about her welfare.

As parents, nothing is more important than our children and it is that natural emotion, of protection, that lies at the heart of this issue.

It is dangerous to judge this campaign outside of its time. The evidence of a link between the MMR and autism has since been discredited, but in 1997 that was not the case. There was genuine concern, even fear, among parents that they could be putting their children at risk.

The Evening Post highlighted those concerns in its campaign. It gave those with worries about MMR a voice and, in keeping with the tradition of this paper, that voice was balanced by the views of those who supported the vaccine. And we weren't alone. This was a nationwide concern that generated headlines across the country. To put our coverage in context, a paper was published in the medical journal The Lancet in 1998 which presented evidence that autism disorders could be caused by the vaccine. This was later retracted, but not until 2010. It is clear that there were genuine concerns in the mid-90s about MMR and the Post gave them full and responsible coverage.

Our campaign reflected the concerns of parents, it told their stories, it called for answers, it wanted clarity.

What it did not do was tell people to avoid immunising their children against measles - or mumps, or rubella.

It actually warned parents they had to ensure their children were protected. It said measles was not a disease to be taken lightly.

What it did do was suggest people considered the options, sought medical advice, looked at the single jab alternative.

And when health experts came out and defended the MMR jab as safe, the paper printed those stories too.

That is not to say I disagree with the view that the campaign was hard-hitting. It was. It gave a front page voice to anxious parents who believed the MMR may have given their children autism.

Looking at the campaign with the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to be critical. To judge it honestly and fairly, one has to consider the fear which existed at the time, the fact that medical experts were publicly expressing concerns about the vaccine and the duty of this the paper to reflect public opinion.

What I can say with absolute certainty is that the Evening Post has always, and will continue to, put the interests of our city and our readers first. It would never seek to mislead. In some quarters, editors may be judged on their ability to sell newspapers, but in the regional newspaper world, we are very much a part of the communities we serve, and have an obligation to act responsibly.

Which is why today, and over the weeks in which the measles outbreak has developed, we have taken the lead in highlighting the facts and providing the key information parents need to best protect their children.

Evening Post Editor Jonathan Roberts will be hosting a live webchat tomorrow at 2.30pm on this site.

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27 comments

  • adam_irae  |  May 02 2013, 12:54PM

    It is the job -and duty- of a newspaper to present facts. In complex cases, with large amounts of conflicting information, the press is supposed to sort through the available information, and present the information in a balanced manner. In this case, the paper did not even attempt to sort through the available information, but presented a small number of cranks opinions as equal in weight to the knowledge of scientists and researchers in the field. Or sometimes ignored the considered opinions of the experts entirely. The motivation appears to have been simply that "danger" headlines sell better, and there does not appear to have been the least consideration of consequences. In a matter involving life or death for a large number of local children. To "Reflect parents concerns" is to renounce the responsibility of a newpaper to present factual information. The responsibility for sorting through the available information was left to the parents. Who may have been looking to the paper in the belieft that it was providing factual coverage. It is an admission of guilt, not a defense. Andrew Wakefields fraudulent research wasn't uncovered by other scientists. It was uncovered by the Times. They were not attempting to reflect anyones concerns, but to practice actual investigative journalism.

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  • meg_loopy  |  April 28 2013, 8:23PM

    CONCERNED WROTE "Meg_loopy-as you yourself say you were in the media quite abit with your opinions being reported and also locally within the school playground. YES I WAS , I BELIEVE ANYONE CAN HAVE AN OPINION JUST LIKE YOU DO HERE. THE FACT THAT I STARTED A CAMPAIGN FOR CHOICE I HARDLY CONSIDER THAT POSITION OTHER THAN SENSIABLE AT THAT TIME, IN FACT MY OPINION ON CHOICE HASNT CHANGED AND NEVER WILL CHANGE. I recall one of your comments (which left us other parents stunned) which I quote from another newspaper: "I would rather my children have measles and risk being blind or deaf than develop autism or a bowel disorder from the MMR vaccine" I HAVE ANSWERED THAT ON ANOTHER COMMENT OF YOURS ON ANOTHER ARITICLE I think I can speak on all us loving parents out there, "I would rather my children not have any illness, nor knowingly take any risk on their health". AND SOME PARENTS WOULD FEEL THAT THEY ARE DOING THAT BY NOT VACCINATING. JUST AS THEY DONT IMPOSE ON YOUR DECISION DONT IMPOSE ON THEIRS. AS THE MMR IS SO EFFECTIVE, YOU HAVE NOTHING TO FEAR ...DO YOU. After your previous comment I have quoted above, I have thankfully not taken any of your views seriously in the past (also i notice by your negative ratings neither do other readers) and am proud to say I put the welfare of my children and those within my community first and all my children have been vaccinated. Also all of my children eat a healthy balanced diet, rich in all nutrients and vitamins! I APPLAUD YOU, I REALLY DO, BECAUSE THATS WHAT YOU WANT ISNT? AND THANK YOU FOR SHOWING UP YOUR AGENDA HERE, CLEARLY YOU HAVE ISSUES FROM THE PAST. I SUGGEST YOU GET OVER IT. I WISH YOU WELL May I take this opportunity of wishing all those affected by this needless measles epidemic a speedy recovery back to good health!" HERE HERE !

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  • Neathboy234  |  April 21 2013, 3:41PM

    Experts are wrong EP is right!!!!!!!

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  • Concerned2013  |  April 11 2013, 9:25PM

    Meg_loopy-as you yourself say you were in the media quite abit with your opinions being reported and also locally within the school playground. I recall one of your comments (which left us other parents stunned) which I quote from another newspaper: "I would rather my children have measles and risk being blind or deaf than develop autism or a bowel disorder from the MMR vaccine" I think I can speak on all us loving parents out there, "I would rather my children not have any illness, nor knowingly take any risk on their health". After your previous comment I have quoted above, I have thankfully not taken any of your views seriously in the past (also i notice by your negative ratings neither do other readers) and am proud to say I put the welfare of my children and those within my community first and all my children have been vaccinated. Also all of my children eat a healthy balanced diet, rich in all nutrients and vitamins! May I take this opportunity of wishing all those affected by this needless measles epidemic a speedy recovery back to good health!

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  • JoeRoberts  |  April 11 2013, 9:34AM

    The right response is to apologise, explain and then get committed to the current campaign to encourage vaccination. Up until now I thought the paper was committed to doing the last of these which would be to its credit. The past campaign was wrong and was wrong at the time. It is not true to suggest that there was past 50:50 debate that and that it is only now with the benefit of hindsight that we can see that. Many parts of the press stood on the right side of that argument during the scare period, some were neutral and some eagerly fed the scare. SWEP was one and it is sad to see any suggestion of "fighting back". Spend your energy encouraging vaccination please"

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  • EwenM  |  April 10 2013, 8:33AM

    Hayley: I can only reiterate, the court case ruling that MMR did not cause autism ruled that this was true 'in general' and was a case specifically designed to set precedent as a test case. But all this arguing about a theoretical risk is a distraction: Multiple studies have shown that there is no detectable risk of MMR causing autism. The same studies show that single jabs are no safer than MMR. I saw one study showing that MMR might actually lower the risk of autism, and that single jabs were more risky.

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  • Emma-Kate  |  April 10 2013, 8:27AM

    Jonathan Roberts has nothing to apologise for with the latest outbreak and I am alarmed that he feels he needs to. I seriously question the motives of anyone that would like to silence half the debate over vaccination, particularly that covered by balanced and thoughtful reporting in our free press. As he (much more eloquently) explains, his role - then and now - is to investigate and report both sides. Long may our newspapers be allowed to do that without apology and revisionism...

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  • Hayleyjj  |  April 09 2013, 11:40PM

    EwenM: Court rulings that MMr does not cause autism merely shows that in that case there was no evidence of the link, HOWEVER court rulings that rule that MMR DOES and DID cause autism shows clear evidence of the link! I have three children and they have all had measles and rubella vaccines single, unfortunately the mumps vaccine is currently not being produced... I wonder why???? I am not prepared to play Russian Roulette with my children's lives! As for media playijg a part in the low uptake of the MMR I wish the media would have the guts to publicise the rulings in support of the CLEAR link between MMR and autuism .... what or who are they afraid of!!!????

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  • hatstand  |  April 09 2013, 3:38PM

    The evidence for a link between MMR and autism, even before Wakefield's fraudulent paper was retracted, was painfully thin. But the media picked it up and ran with it, whipping up a massive panic which was not justified by the evidence. Jonathan, you appear to feel your paper was acting responsibly when it fed this panic. It was not. If your paper is acting responsibly, it would have trained science writers check the background and write such articles, and it would give dissenting views the appropriate weight. Under such circumstances, given the appropriate balance, the thrust of your articles about MMR would have been "Though very small study seeks to draw link between MMR and autism, huge weight of evidence to show MMR is safe, health care professional advises us to continue to get vaccinations, these diseases maim and kill." Reporting on your readers' "concerns", without putting those concerns into context, is as bad as shouting "Fire" in a crowded cinema. You and the rest of the media that whipped up this frenzy share responsibility for the problems we now face, and you have badly let down the readership whose concerns you claim to represent, and who should have been able to trust your reporting.

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  • EwenM  |  April 09 2013, 3:10PM

    meg, if only a "remote possibility exists that an attenuated vaccine could revert to a virulent form and cause disease" then why are you trying to scare people with a rare possibility? Do you have any evidence at all (that we can read, not in your dim recollection) that MMR has ever caused measles? And "only a small minority of children 16 years ago were not vaccinated"? I think the figure was 77.4% vaccinated, so 22.6% were not. A 'small minority' to you, but more than enough to allow for an outbreak in the general community.

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